OPINION: When you think of the ways that you might be deceived by others, the potential deceptions fall into two main categories: lying by commission and lying by omission.
The former is the blatant lie, such as “our new hot-desking arrangement is about collaboration, not about saving costs”, while the latter is the absence of truth, such as “I left the organisation” (instead of “I was sacked”).
And now a third category of lying has been discovered and it’s quite possibly the most deceptive of them all.
Researchers from Harvard University have conducted a series of studies and experiments, which have culminated in what they call ‘paltering’.
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Paltering is when people use factual statements to mislead others. It then becomes very difficult to accuse them of lying when they can justifiably say they were telling the truth. It’s just they did so in a manipulative way.
Here’s an example of how it works. A recruiter might interview a number of candidates for a vacant position and then, when finally making an offer to one of them, may preface it with something like, “There was a lot of demand for this position – so much interest”.
That might give the impression it was a tight race, thereby making the successful candidate less likely to negotiate a bigger salary.
In reality, though, while there may have been hundreds of people who applied, there might have only been one worth interviewing.
It’s not factually incorrect, then, to say there was a lot of demand but the mischievous intent with which it was used makes the act deceitful. That’s paltering.
In one of their eight studies, the Harvard scholars surveyed 180 business executives.
Just over half admitted to paltering.
But the more curious finding is that the deceivers found it to be a relatively ethical form of behaviour.
In other words, even though they knew it was a mode of deception, they didn’t view it as a big deal since they weren’t technically telling a bald-faced lie.
In any case, it works.
The researchers conducted a property-buying experiment, the outcome was that palterers earned $1.6 million more than those who were honest.
It’s a technique known as strategic deception, and it was also evident on a much larger scale in another study published this year by Cardiff University, which concluded that “lying is so commonplace in corporations that it often passes without comment”.
In its extreme example, it analysed a call centre that had grown from four employees to almost 100 in the space of a few years.
The whole organisation’s existence is centred on a lie. Its employees pretend to be private receptionists for small businesses that can’t afford to have one of their own. The receptionists deceive customers into thinking they’re based on their clients’ premises.
The researchers interviewed 75 per cent of the workforce. It quickly became apparent senior managers treated their staff extremely well so they felt “cared for and trusted to deceive”.
As one of the team members remarked, “I think I get paid very well for what I do … sitting on the phone and lying”.
It’s a practice that begins right at the start. “As [the company] was expanding rapidly, it was important to ensure that new recruits would accept lying as an intrinsic job feature.”
And even though a majority found it a “strange and demanding” expectation, it wasn’t long before they became acclimatised to it.
That acclimatisation occurred because, over time, “lying made work more enjoyable, it was experienced as satisfying and empowering as receptionists used their creativity and inventiveness”. Experiences included the following:
“I found [lying] really hard in the beginning. I found it awful because you just have to lie. Just have to.”
“You have to be professional at lying, in a nice sense I always say. People ask me what I do for a living, and I say I am a professional liar.”
“The lies, they just sort of roll off my tongue … it just comes naturally now, whereas before I had a stutter because I knew that I was lying, and I’d feel really awful.”
She should have paid more attention to the stutter.
James Adonis is the author of Employee Enragement.